Go local in Abu Dhabi visiting its carpet and fish markets

There's hardly a place where you can capture the quintessence of a country as much as in its local markets. More than tourist bazaars, where you are more likely to find mock-local products, especially made for tourists, hidden markets are busy with locals who, supposedly, know where to shop for grocery and other basic goods better than visitors.

When I lived in Rome, I used to go to two markets, the one in Via Trionfale for grocery, fresh bread, and food in general, and the one in Via Sannio for clothing, where I've always found fantastic deals for leather jackets.

In this kind of markets, local traders show their best, and grant customers with many pearls worth remembering: in Rome, for example, when a seller wants to convince you that his price is the excellent, he'll trump: "That's it! I want to ruin myself for you!" Said with Roman accent, it's truly memorable.

In Abu Dhabi, I spent a morning hanging around the carpet and the fish markets, and my expectations were widely met: if you want to buy truly local products, nowhere is better than a proper local market, mainly unknown by tourists. I went with a friend of mine who lives in Abu Dhabi and who wanted to buy a carpet. I'm proud to say that I have witnessed a proper bargain.

Acutally, my friend had already been there, had already chosen his carpet and had already started a negotiation, so we were to start the second round. I sat and enjoyed the show: both men (my friend and the carpet-seller) started shouting and waving at each other. As I'm Italian, and I know Arabs have a similar way of speaking with hands, I didn't worry about the dynamic talk.

I couldn't understand a word, as the bargaining was happening in Arabic, and I was somehow misled: "Good," I thought, "they are finding an agreement."

Not as quite. My friend darted out the door and the carpet-trader, undisturbed, still sitting on one of his carpets, whispered a wise "Aaahhh!". A little troubled, suddenly aware I had got it all wrong, I ran after my friend, more disappointed than the carpet-seller, who's certainly used to such activities and doesn't really look to rush with his sales.

In his white tunic and his desert in mind, he smiled at us as if thinking: "I know you are coming back." And he was quite right, actually: my friend stopped by the other sellers, but they were all loyal to their colleague and didn't offer a lower price.

"He's a very proud man, he must come from the desert, they are very strong people," said my friend patiently. I kept hoping to go back to see that man, I begged him to bring me there again and keep bargaining so that I could enjoy the show, but not a chance. Even if I couldn't understand what they were saying, there was something ancestral in their discussion, more genuine than sales in big department stores.

Never mind, we were off to the fish market, just opposite, near Abu Dhabi port.

The first thing I noticed is that it was spotless. After photographing some weird fish on display, and the biggest prawns and crabs ever, I ended up in the area where fast fish-cleaners prepare the fish according to the cooking needs of the customers. So they spend their day peeling, chopping, slicing and scaling any kind of fish bought from the neighbouring stalls.

Our morning ended at the Emirates Palace, claim to fame of Abu Dhabi luxury, certainly in striking contrast with the previous little markets, but also undoubtedly less lively.


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